Halo Infinite is right around the corner, and I have two more Halo games to revisit in anticipation for its arrival. This time we are going back to one of the anticipated game releases of all time: Halo 2. Halo 2 was a watershed moment for the industry when it was released, but the development leading up to it has often been cited as being turbulent, to say the least. The infamous cliffhanger ending is the direct result of not being able to meet deadlines for Bungie’s very ambitious follow-up.
I played Halo 2 considerably less than Combat Evolved growing up, and I lost access to playing it after a few moves around my state. However, when the MCC dropped, I was finally able to give it another proper go. I tend to see 2014 as my prime Halo 2 year because I spent all my free time trying to learn the speedrunning techniques.
It gave me a different perspective of Halo and made me appreciate the game a little more. But I want to see how the game is without all the tricks I learned. I want to take a step back and see where this Halo classic sits in the pantheon of Halo games.
Permission to Leave the Station
Halo 2 picks up after the events of Combat Evolved (obviously), and the Master Chief has reconnected with UNSC forces and is currently stationed on Cairo Station, where he is receiving an armor upgrade for being such a good Spartan. He meets up with an old friend who we all saw die, Sergeant Johnson, and heads to an award ceremony where Lord Hood introduces Miranda Keyes and Cortana makes a snarky remark. It feels good to see everyone taking a moment to celebrate and not be fretting about the Covenant, even if it’s just for a moment.
Johnson’s and Cortana’s quips are in high form in Halo 2, and they might be my favorite characters in Halo 2. Miranda will have a pivotal role in the plot of the games going forward, but it feels like her introduction and integration was a little thrown in there. We don’t get much of a sense of who she is in Halo 2 besides at the very end of the game when she has been captured. She’s kind of just there to move things along.
The award ceremony is cut short when it’s announced that Covenant forces were in Earth’s orbit, and some were beginning to board their station. It turns out that the Covenant were only looking for Forerunner technology and ended up finding Humanity’s homeworld in the process. That’s a big deal and immediately puts the stakes back up despite there not being a universe destroying super laser at this point in the narrative.
However, as we are learning about how Chief is getting ready for more action, we are beginning to be introduced to the Covenant’s side of things. The lens that we view all of this is through a former Covenant general, Thel ‘Vadam, who was in charge of leading his forces to repel UNSC off the Halo ring for Covenant control, but he failed. That failure is where we pick up his story because he is being held in a courtroom to answer for why the Halo ring ended up being destroyed.
It’s ultimately decided that Thel ‘Vadam will be punished by becoming the new Arbiter. The Arbiter is considered a martyr who only goes on suicide missions, so Thel ‘Vadam will give his life soon for the COvenant without angering the Elite’s race through a simple execution. The Prophets are killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.
It feels strange to continuously get these updates in cut scenes for a little while, and then bam. We are given control of Thel ‘Vadam in his new role as the Arbiter in the fourth mission, “The Arbiter.”
Apparently, a lot of people didn’t like this split when the original game, but seeing as how the plot of the trilogy went, I think the split narrative did a lot more good than bad. We are able to see the Covenant in a new light. We see that they aren’t just mindless aliens that are bent on destroying the universe. They are a complex force made up of different races with different personalities and motivations.
We are also able to begin to see the internal conflicts in the Covenant and how the Prophets are just manipulative overloads that are taking advantage of the different races. It all helps to make the Human-Covenant war feel a lot more complicated and, in parts, tragic. Halo 2 breathes new depth into Halo’s story thus far, and it’s still refreshing.
A Great Journey
Halo 2 introduces a few new toys to the sandbox from the precision weapons like the battle rifle and carbine, the once Covenant exclusive weapons like the fuel rod cannon and energy sword, and some new vehicles like the specter and gauss hog. Halo 2 changed the way that Halo was played with many of these additions. On top of that, the music here is great whether you are listening to the classic soundtrack or the revamped anniversary soundtrack.
You will be ready to march into battle, hearing whatever is tuned through your speakers. It does stick out hearing Breaking Benjamin in my Halo game, though. It might not if Halo stuck to using outside sound like that but they never returned to that idea for better or worse.
For the most part, both the Chief and the Arbiter get some interesting levels that can feel epic one moment and a little eerie in others. In fact, the first three Master Chief levels are some of the most fun of any Halo game, and they are some of my favorites to speed run. “Outskirts” is a blast whether you are jumping across rooftops or taking the fight through the streets. It does have Halo’s most infamous enemy, though, in the jackal sniper who guard some of the alleys of New Mombasa—silently waiting with their cross airs trained for any fingers or toes out of place.
The jackal snipers are a huge pain on legendary and usually require that you memorize where they are at in order to successfully get past them. There is no room to mess up, and you will be peeking out from behind a wall several times to ensure that you have them all spotted before you make your move.
“Metropolis” is also a great time after seeing the terrifying power of the Scarab at work; it’s time to chase after it and take it out. Easier said than done as you load into a tank or warthog and take out the Covenant forces that are holding the bridge. Fighting through New Mombasa feels really good as you are taking bridges, tunnels, and huffing through buildings to gain a position on your target. Of course, taking down the Scarab in Halo 2 isn’t nearly as interesting as it is in Halo 3, but it can still feel empowering to jump on and take out all the Covenant forces that are located within.
The next few missions are focused on the Arbiter and do a great job setting him up and beginning to put that distrust in him about the Covenant’s true intentions. You fight a deserter group call the Heretics and find an old friend at the end with 343 Guilty Spark (who definitely should be dead, but if Johnson gets to live, why not the alien AI).
These two levels play pretty straightforward but allow for some banshee time and a reintroduction to the Flood, who are slightly less annoying than in CE. It’s weird to see how many different facilities were harboring Flood spores. The Forerunners really just made their sacrifice useless by saving so many specimens that could potentially come back.
“The Oracle” wraps up the Arbiter’s introduction with Halo 2’s other addition: boss fights. You fight the heretic leader (even though a conversation might have been more productive), and it’s probably the better boss fight in the game. The other two, The Prophet of Regret, and the Brute Chieftain Tartarus, are more gimmicky and boring. However, it is infinitely satisfying to punch Regret over and over.
After “The Oracle,” we finally get more Chief time in “Delta Halo.” That’s right, after Miranda followed the Covenant cruiser through warp space, they come out to see a new Halo floating peacefully in space. Chief heads down to see what the situation is and if Humanity is in danger of another universal genesis. I really like this level because we get to see what ODSTs have to do every time they enter a new combat zone by jumping feet first through a planet’s stratosphere.
The level itself is broken up into sections that include on rails platforms, linear tank sections, and on foot corridors. The thing about Halo 2 is that it is much more linear than CE, which I am sure was a product of the chaotic development cycle, but it certainly stands out after playing the other Bungie titles. This linear trend continues for pretty much the rest of the game.
“The Great Journey” and “Gravemind” get partial passes for their settings and locations within their levels. However, some levels like “The Sacred Icon” are just platforms you sit on and wait for the end. “The Sacred Icon” is so boring I sit in a corner and wait for it to end every single time. “The Oracle” had a similar issue with its elevator. These sitting and waiting sections are not a ton of fun and, on legendary can be grueling, especially on repeat playthroughs.
Speaking of legendary, it’s the hardest in the series in this game. The new enemy variant in the brutes are like gorillas made of sponge. They will take all of your shots and beat you into next week. For this reason, “Gravemind” is just sadistic.
You start out being shot at by two brutes, and all you have is a needler. The amount of times I’ve played through this beginning section isn’t even fathomable, and while I enjoy a challenge, the overly unfair situations that can happen on the highest difficulty from circumstances like that can be annoying.
This is Not Your Grave, But You Are Welcome to It
The game wraps up on an Arbiter level where he is on his way to stop Tartarus from activating the Halo ring. Using banshees, wraiths, and even the specter, you make your way to the Scarab that is docked at one of the ruins.
You are able to free Johnson, who is an excellent Scarab pilot, and advance on the control center where Miranda and Tarteris are preparing the ring. You then have a lackluster boss fight where you avoid Tarteris’s hammer while you wait for Johnson to lower his shields. Once the shields are down, you peck away at his health, rinse and repeat. For all the hype that Tarteris had leading up to this finale, it would have been nice to get a more impactful encounter.
Eventually, the overgrown silverback falls, and Miranda is able to remove the activation index. Another catastrophe was avoided at the last moment. Everything works out on the Arbiter’s side, but what about the man on the cover of the game? Well, we get a cut and see that Master Chief has boarded the vessel that the Prophet got on, and they are on their way to Earth to finish the fight.” Roll credits. It’s a pretty infamous ending at this point, but it still can feel pretty abrupt. I will admit that Halo 3’s mere existence helps to make Halo 2’s ending more palatable, but it’s still not great.
In many ways, Halo 2 can feel like an evolution of CE with more world-building, stronger narrative, new toys to the sandbox, and bigger set pieces. But in some ways, Halo 2 can also feel like a step back, like with how a player can choose to tackle a situation, the very linear structure of almost every level, and the shoe-horned ending.
It’s a Halo that promised a lot and tried to deliver what it could. I love this game, but it will never be perfect. Halo 2 is an excellent bridge between two games but struggles to be a complete package on its own in the single-player department.